In a landmark decision in 2014 prohibiting the bull-taming sport, Jallikattu, the Supreme Court held that “animal has also honour and dignity which cannot be arbitrarily deprived of and its rights and privacy have to be respected and protected from unlawful attacks” ( Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja). Unfortunately, in November, ignoring the very same rights accorded by the court, some residents of Mandawar village near Gurugram clubbed a leopard to death. A few days back, the Delhi Forest Department trapped a young leopard on the fringes of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park. They will most probably send it to Saharanpur.
Following due process
The discovery of these leopards should have been met with optimism. After all, charismatic endangered animals had chosen to make the world’s most polluted city their home. However, this was not the case. The leopards in both cases were viewed as stray animals. In the first case, the leopard was killed by the villagers, and in the second case there was consensus that the wild animal should be sent back to its “home” — a national park or a sanctuary (protected areas). Tragically, while the first leopard was beaten to death, the second leopard was chased like a ‘wanted’ criminal who has just escaped from prison (in this case, a national park or a sanctuary) and has to be sent back, in this case, to the forests.
These incidents bring our attention to certain important legal and ethical issues which arise in the way in which we deal with wild animals that venture into human-dominated landscapes.
Just like Article 21 of the Constitution, which states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”, a wild animal can also be deprived of its life and personal liberty only after following due process, namely, what is mentioned in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Unfortunately, in a country where due process is often not followed even for human beings, it is difficult to imagine that it would be followed with respect to wild animals. And just like ‘encounter killings’ of suspected terrorists, wild animals, especially leopards, are being eliminated across the country through state-sanctioned and public-supported encounter killings. Encounter killings of leopards (besides raising serious issues of animal rights) are bound to have serious consequences for the long-term survival of these wild animals whose population is already threatened by poaching and habitat loss. Thus, we are not just eliminating an individual animal or two, we are pushing an entire species closer to extinction.
When talking about wild species, the notion of ‘stray’ assumes importance. In the second case, the Forest Department in Delhi was quick to conclude, without any scientific basis, that the leopard had “strayed” from either the Kalesar National Park in Haryana or the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh. This view is based on the dominant idea that only a protected area is the “authorised” home of the wild animal, and if a wild animal is found outside the protected area, it must be “rescued” and sent back to the protected area. It is this faulty approach that also views all tribals and forest dwellers as “encroachers” on forest land, requiring them to be relocated to their presumed natural home — cities and urban dwellings — and to be linked to the “civilised” world.
The law governing the subject of wildlife, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, does not discriminate between animals found in protected areas and outside. It provides for equal protection for wild animals irrespective of where they are found. As per the law, wild animals are not the property of the government, and an animal which is wild in nature and free cannot be in the ownership of either the government or a private party. Only if the wild animal becomes a danger to human life or is diseased or disabled beyond recovery can it be allowed to be captured or killed by the competent authority, the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State. This provision is applicable to wild animals listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which includes leopards. Mere apprehension or fear that a wild animal could endanger human life is not a ground for capture or killing.
These leopards displayed amazing adaptability and resilience in the face of massive habitat loss. They have had the audacity to survive in situations where other wild animals have given up. State-sanctioned killing, capture and “rescue” of leopards violates every statutory, constitutional and ethical standard. We must recognise and accept that wild animals are not just born free, they have the right to remain free, the right to move freely, and the right of equal protection of the law irrespective of whether they are in a protected area or outside. This is the minimum that is required if India is serious about protecting its wildlife and biodiversity.
Ritwick Dutta is an environmental lawyer.